Sunday, March 1, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Gifts of the Wilderness

Lent to Easter: “Show Us”

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

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Gifts of the wilderness

A few years ago our family travelled from our home in PA to Taos, NM for an intentional time of wilderness experience.  We wanted to do some hiking, camping, and canoeing as a family.  John and I wanted to engage in reflection pertaining to faith, life, and vocation.  It was a wonderfully challenging space for family relationships, earth discovery, and some good mid-life refocusing for John and I. 

Taos is in the north-central region of New Mexico in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The ground appears mostly arid, with sagebrush growing like grass and dry bundles blowing across the landscape.  The air is drier than we were accustomed to and we were instructed to be extra mindful in staying hydrated.  There were many deciduous and a few coniferous trees in the mountains, but on the platous the trees were spread out, leaving the landscape barren looking at many places. 

Not surprisingly, where trees and life flourished the most were by the sources of water. But it isn’t so evident when looking at the landscape from afar.

Our family did a multi-day backpacking/camping trek where we hiked in one day, spent a couple of nights at the same campsite while doing some day hikes and activities in between.  One of those days, I spent a morning in retreat by myself.  I hiked up a trail that meandered along a small mountain tributary.  Free of anyone else setting the pace, I began my hike wanting to cover as much ground as I could.  My goal was to get to a lookout point. 

As the trail crisscrossed the tributary I began to notice little flowers and ferns and tall aspen.  I began to stop and use my phone’s camera to take pictures of the blooms.  One bloom led to another which led to noticing more specimens of life around me.  In what I felt like was such a dry and barren land, began to unfold into a landscape of beauty and complexity.  It took me slowing down and noticing the small things to gain appreciation for the larger landscape.

This isn’t quite the landscape that Jesus was sent out to experience in the wilderness.  We associate the wilderness as a place with few resources.  Sun and heat are plentiful, water is not.  It is a place with a barren landscape where shelter may be hard to come by.  The basics of life are challenging to keep up with. 

From a distance it seems as though it was a raw and unforgiving place for Jesus to be sent to.  However, I would like to back up a little more to consider the fuller landscape. Jesus was led to the wilderness directly after his baptism. In 3:16-17 it says, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (4:1) “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” where he fasted for 40 days.

I don’t think we should underestimate how hugely formative these experiences were for Jesus.  Jesus’ time with the Spirit, for it says the Spirit of God descended upon him and led him, was a time of strengthening Jesus’ inner being.  I see this time as one where Jesus became so intimate with God, that no amount of hunger or earthly vulnerability could tempt him.  Thus when the devil came to test Jesus’ earthly vulnerabilities of priorities, power, and possessions, Jesus’ strength in his identity and faith formation was evident in his ability to not waiver. 

Instead of seeing Jesus’ time in the wilderness as Jesus’ most vulnerable point, I have come to view this time as where he became the strongest.  Maybe not strongest physically, but certainly strongest spiritually.  He knew who he was.  He knew whose he was.  And he knew what his life was to be about.  For from this point, Jesus began his public ministry.

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s orders not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, resulted in the consequence of knowing. Knowing they did what they were asked not to do. Knowing they were different from the rest of creation.  Knowing that their comfort and security they had with God was now replaced by needing to cover up and hide.

A commentary written by David Lose, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota who served at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, referenced two writers in his reflections on our Genesis and Matthew passages.

One was Blaise Pascal, a 17th century french philosopher who “spoke of the condition of being human as one of having a ‘God-shaped hole’...not seen as a flaw, but rather as the means by which God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with God.”

Second was St. Augustine, a 4th century African Bishop that wrote in the first lines of his Confessions, “God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.”

Lose goes onto say, “read in light of these classic theologians, the Genesis narrative indicates that before there is "original sin" there is "original insecurity." Adam and Eve, then, are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.”

In the midst of a picture of plenty in the garden, the serpent preys on Adam and Eve’s vulnerability in painting a picture of incompleteness and distrust in God the creator.  Their security was called into question.  Their hole was revealed.  Their belonging was challenged.

This sounds so similar to what the messages we receive from advertisements.  Their job is to convince you and I that we need to own or look or be a certain way in order to be secure.

Jesus refused the security of the things of this world.  The experience of his baptism and knowing that he was God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased, provided a foundation from which he grew in, in the wilderness. In what initially is seen as a place of weakness turns out to be a place that drew strength.

I have heard that there is a shadow side to our strengths.  I want to say at the outset, it is good to develop our gifts and call out strengths in ourselves and others.  Encouragement is positive.  It is okay to feel good about what we do.  However, when our strength becomes that which we lean on for our identity, security, and rely on for our self worth, there inlies the shadow where temptations are present.

If we tease this out a bit it may look like this…

Where is your identity and security tethered?  Where do you spend most of your thought space or time?

Maya Angelou said in an interview with Bill Moyers, that “you are only free when you realize you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high.  The reward is great.” Jesus discovered his freedom in the wilderness, tethered to God’s spirit for security, identity, and a sense of belonging which is no place but found in every place.  For it isn’t out there to be discovered but rather internally to be tapped.

We have voices all around calling, leuring, trying to convince us that our security is found through our profession, bank accounts, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the hairdo, makeup, and gym membership we have.  We are told our identity is found in our skin color, our gender, our sexual orientation, family history, political party, or any group designation. These are things identified outside of our inner being. Now they certainly inform our inner being. However, there is a caveat to each of these.  You are secure if fill in the blank. Your identity is fulfilled if fill in the blank. You belong fill in the blank.

Adam and Eve revealed our own temptation to listen to the voices of insecurity surrounding us. 

Jesus not only showed us but gives us the opportunity to claim God’s love for ourselves, just as we are, no designations needed.  Each of us is a beloved child of God.

Jesus experienced the wilderness as the landscape in which he grew into his belovedness in such a way that he was willing to stand alone resisting the temptations.  

The wilderness has been sought out for spiritual pilgrimages by people from different faiths over the ages.  This wilderness is not just physical but an internal spiritual pilgrimage.

I am drawn to Brene Brown’s thoughts on wilderness.  Brown is a sociologist who has done extensive research on people in relation to vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.

Brown acknowledges that “theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the metaphor of the wilderness.”  The commonalities “are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.” The wilderness is “an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared.  The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it...But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
When God is a part of our wilderness, filling our God-shaped hole, there is a deep sense of security.  When we live from our belovedness, then we no longer have to prove to anyone our worth or belonging.

Lent is a time to enter into this wilderness.  A time when we are invited to take a journey as Jesus did, challenging us to rely on God for our security and identity rather than the messages that swirl around us.

Lent has a tradition of giving up or taking on a discipline that we may dedicate the same amount of time in prayer or contemplation.  This has meaning for some and for others it has become dogmatic and lost meaning.  What I challenge you with this week is to reflect on what it is in your life that draws your attention away from or toward living into being a beloved child of God?  And what difference does it make for you?

When we stand from a place of God’s strength and security, our perspective changes.  Fears are kept in check, convictions of lifestyle shift, possessions loosen their grip. 

There should be a warning though, as Jesus did, we risk our lives living into God’s belovedness for us.  It is a place of risk, but one of great meaning and reward.

Here would be another opportunity for reflection, to experiment each day by saying these 7 words to yourself 5 times, emphasizing a different word each time.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.

We will never keep temptation fully at bay.  Ash Wednesday was a day to remind us of our mortality.  However, even in the most barren of places, God’s love endures forever.

And so we acknowledge our constant need for God’s presence to be with us on this wilderness way.  I invite us to pray together in song, When we are tested and wrestle alone, acknowledging our need for God to be with us on this journey.

Hymn: When we are tested and wrestle alone
(to be sung to the melody of ‘Be thou my vision’)

When we are tested and wrestle alone,
famished for bread when the world offers stone,
nourish us, God, by your word and your way,
food that sustains us by night and by day.
When in the desert we cry for relief,
pleading for paths marked by certain belief,
lift us to love you beyond sign and test,
trusting your presence, our only true rest.
When we are tempted to barter our souls,
trading the truth for the pow’r to control,
teach us to worship and praise only you,
seeking your will in the work that we do.
When we have struggled and searched through the night,
sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer.

Ruth Duck © 1996, Hope Publishing Company

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